BEIRUT – Fatah’s security chief in Lebanon says his faction will extend security control over all Palestinian camps in order to prevent the rise of Islamist radical groups such as the Al-Qaeda-inspired Fatah Islam, whose conflict with the army last summer destroyed the northern Nahr al-Bared camp.
"After what happened in Nahr al-Bared, [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas asked me personally to take over security in the other camps to prevent it happening again," Fatah commander Mounir Maqdah told IRIN.
The move comes as Al-Qaeda mastermind Ayman Zawahiri called on followers in Lebanon to fight Israel and UN peacekeepers and as tensions continue between secular, nationalist factions and radical Islamists in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh.
Though the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), of which Fatah is the dominant faction, has long held sway over most of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian camps – home to just over half the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees – its relative weakness in Nahr al-Bared allowed Fatah Islam radicals to gain a foothold.
The new security arrangements are a significant step in the re-emergence of the PLO in Lebanon after decades in which Syria, whose army occupied Lebanon for 29 years up to 2005, had sought to weaken the PLO over its involvement in the ruinous Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990.
Fatah’s Maqdah said that though he had no formal written agreement with the Lebanese authorities, who do not enter the camps under a long-standing agreement to allow Palestinians autonomous security, any outlaw in the camps wanted on criminal charges would be handed over to the army.
"I will start making a tour of all the camps and will listen to the demands of the Palestinians," said Maqdah. "But what I can guarantee is that the camps will stop being a shelter for outlaws, and that these steps will be in coordination with all the factions."
Most Dangerous Camp
Ain al-Hilweh is the largest and most dangerous Palestinian camp, home to around 75,000 people and a dozen heavily armed factions ranging from Communists to Palestinian nationalists to Islamists indoctrinated with global `jihad’, many of whom see secular Fatah as a rival.
The overthrow of Fatah in Gaza by Hamas in June 2007 also spiked tensions between the two groups vying for Palestinian leadership, though both insisted in recent interviews that "what went on in Gaza, stays in Gaza."
A number of militants who formed Fatah Islam in Nahr al-Bared passed through, or originated in, Ain al-Hilweh, including Saudis and the Palestinian commander of the Islamists, according to various factions inside Ain al-Hilweh.
The three-month long conflict in Nahr al-Bared last summer was the worst internal violence since the end of the civil war, killing 168 soldiers, over 200 militants and 47 civilians, and displacing up to 40,000 residents of the camp.
Fugitive Fatah Islam leader Shaker Abssi has since pledged to target Lebanon’s army chiefs, while in a 22 April message posted on the Internet, Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri called Lebanon a "Muslim frontline fort" that will "have a pivotal role, God willing, in future battles with the Crusaders and the Jews".
The tense security situation inside the Palestinian camps was highlighted on 21 March when heavy clashes broke out between Fatah and members of Islamist group Jund as-Sham, based on the edge of Ain al- Hilweh.
The fighting, which prompted at least 100 families to flee the camp, was triggered after Fatah seized a commander of Jund as-Sham, who also fought the army last summer in response to a call by Fatah Islam, and handed him over to the Lebanese army.
Maqdah said that while the seizure of the Jund as-Sham commander had been done without enough coordination with other factions in Ain al-Hilweh, the new security arrangements would ensure that no militants could exist beyond the reach of the inter-factional committees.
"Any breakdown in security in the camps is a breakdown in Lebanese security. In the past it was forbidden for Fatah and PLO to work in the camps of the north, maybe because it was too close to Syria," said Maqdah.
"We hope after these arrangements our camps will be more secure and also it will improve the living conditions of the Palestinians."
Neither the army nor the Ministry of Defence was able to comment on the new security role of Fatah inside the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.